Hawthorne Racecourse, Stickney, IL, July 18 & 19

Well I missed Opening Weekend at HAW as I was spending my betting cash at Charlie Russell Downs right then, and then last weekend I only got one short day in at the local digs, but this past weekend I got to spend both Saturday and Sunday at the renovated Hawthorne. I'm here to tell ya, I'm impressed by what I saw. Amazing what several millions of dollars will do to perk up a race track.

First thing you notice when you walk in - either grandstand or club side - is that the entire place has been cleaned up and brightened up by new walls, ceilings, and floors, all in light colors that really, really make it a lighter and more cheery place.

The ceilings on all floors (at least the three I visit) are all now white panel drop-ceiling types that hide all of the structure and really make the place a lot brighter. The only downside is that some of the TV's that used to be suspended from the ceiling, especially along the front of the clubhouse seats, are gone. Hope they get around to replacing those. The biggest difference is noticeable on the 3rd floor of the grandstand, where the ceiling has been lowered a lot, and the old cavernous feeling is totally gone.

Most all of the floors have been redone, as well, with new linoleum tiles in bright colors and attractive patterns. Unfortunately, these things aren't cigarette proof, and the schlubs on the 1st floor grandstand side have already burned a few of the tiles by crushing their butts on the floor. Not sure it would help, but some of the old permanent ashtrays that used to be in existence, at least club side, might help some people get their cigarettes to a proper spot to put them out.

Most impressive is the refurbishing that has been done on the walls. Now everything is white panels framed by attractive wood trim, everywhere instead of just some places like it used to be, and combined with the brigher ceilings and floors, it really perks the place up and makes it a much brighter and more pleasant place to visit. This was reflected in the lower grandstand side crowd I saw. Lower grandstand used to be kind of a no-man's land, but on these weekends I saw families with kids, and older couples, and younger yuppie types, and in short all the types I ever saw at AP, and all for a very reasonable $1 grandstand side admission (after free parking).

Finally, throughout the plant, counter tops and table tops have been redone in an attractive dark green marble motif. The entire clubhouse railing behind the seats, which used to be a popular hanging spot, is now a long counter top of this same material, framed in by a wood cabinet, which makes for a very nice spot to stop and spread out your form and generally get your bearings like we all have to do from time to time.

So that's the overall motif. Specific new improvements are as follows:

Up on the 3rd floor of the grandstand, which used to be pretty deserted in spite of the fact that the outdoor seats offer some of the best views of live racing in Chicago, some banks of simulcast TV's have been added, and there are actually tellers on duty, and it is a nice quiet place to hang for either simulcast players or those who want to watch the live races from the outdoor seats. Also new on this level is a set of outdoor TV boxes, carpeted with comfy chairs, next to and in front of the turf club, in the shade, which are pretty much directly over the finish line and which have a set of autotote machines right there, and can be rented by the day. Most of this past weekend was spent up there in the company of horse ownership partners, and these are very nice and comfortable and friendly if you've got some sort of group along. The rafters have also been wired off to keep the pigeons away, although I think this happened last year, so that particular problem has also been eliminated.

Down on the 2nd floor of the grandstand, they've added a big simulcast area, with the TV's framed in by the same attractive wood cabinets, with nice wicker chairs for the patrons of this area to sit in. This spot seems to be very popular, as most of the chairs were taken. Plenty of betting windows and machines, plus a few concession stands, and other tables and chairs for simul players, plus the original seats up front looking out to the track, which are free.

First floor grandstand shows the most changes. The old gift shop, which I had long ridiculed as among the worst in racing, has been relocated to the center of the floor and much expanded, and offers a very nice variety of quality merchandise for very cheap prices (I got a nice HAW t-shirt for $10). Also new is the food court, which offers a good variety of cheap eats, including windows for Mexican (burrito $3.50), Greek (gyros, $4.50), Italian beef and sausages for $4.25 and $3.50 respectively, Chinese items (egg roll $2.00, sweet and sour pork $4.75), plus the usual hamburgers and hotdogs for $3.25/$2.00. In short, everything way cheaper than one could have ever had at Arlington. This food court seemed to be very popular, as there were lines all day long. Additionally, the jockey hall of fame and the history of Hawthorne display have been moved down to the grandstand floor from the clubhouse end, and help break up that big expanse of space, and of course make these accessible to all patrons, and not just the club side folks. Some interesting info in these displays, plus a very nice series of drawings of some of the jockeys. Lots of new tables and chairs on this side, too, for the simulcast players.

Down on clubhouse 1st floor, the biggest noticeable change after the ceilings, floors and walls (and doors - all new doors or at least restained doors all over the plant) is the aforementioned counter top for people to lean on, plus additional circular table tops/counters at some of the supporting posts. Also additional tables and chairs for the banks of simulcast TV banks, along with a few rows of actual simulcast style carrels for early arrivers to claim.

The bar on the west end, which was never open in all my experience, is now open and has been transformed, I think, into a fruit drink kind of place, with a very nice open air deck outside. This deck is a good concept, and attractive, with very nice deck furniture, and is a nice quiet place to hang, but unfortunately you really can't see the live races at all, so have to rely on the bank of TV's, which are unfortunately not shaded well enough to keep out the glare. These TV's should also be angled downward toward the customers to help cut the glare. A big row of trees to the west to separate this deck from the west parking lot would also be nice, but since I know that big trees don't grow overnight, maybe a big wooden trellis with some vines would do the trick to make this a more secluded getaway spot without the ugly view of the parking lot and Laramie Ave., the secluded spot angle being IMHO the strongest possible selling point of this deck area. Maybe even a little piped in music? You can't really hear the PA system from here anyhow. One of my group has suggested that a beer garden deck off the grandstand end, where you can actually see the live races, might have been a better idea, but I still kind of like the possibilities of this little deck. Stairs lead off the deck down to the picnic table area, which is indeed nice and secluded and cool under the trees, but the lawn here is in serious need of water.

Mezzanine level of the clubhouse, which used to be a ghost town, has also been spruced up and some simulcast areas added to make it a bit more useful.

Gold Cup Room level of the clubhouse is still very nice, as it has always been, and some new carpet and upholstery in the boxes is in evidence. this whole level, with its big plush chairs and "coffee tables", gives one the impression of betting the horses from the comfort of your own living room.

The last area that I scouted out was the infield, which is now open on weekends, and where they have have concerts after the races. The Chicago crowd doesn't quite have the infield mentality of the So. Cal. folks, and the primary attraction in the infield so far seems to be the pony rides for the kids. However, there's a betting windows there, and a nice BBQ, and a beer stand, and lots of picnic tables, and a big tent to keep the sun off. The primary problems I see with this area as far as not making it more popular are the fact that you cannot hear the PA system, and there are only two TV's dedicated to watching the races, and these, like the deck TV's, suffer from a severe glare problem, and probably should also be suspended above the patrons and angles down to cut the glare. This is what they do with the TV's in the So. Cal. infields, and being able to see the TV's sure makes being in the infield where you really can't see much of the live races anyhow a much more acceptable experience.

Other than that, the only other comment I picked up from one of my group was that the women's restrooms need much better lighting. Supposedly the high quality of the restrooms at AP was one of the big drawing points for women. Go figure if that's all it takes to make a track more attractive.

As far as the racing itself went, it was kind of a mixed bag over these three days. One day all sorts of nice allowance horses with big fields, and the next short fields of claimers (but to be fair, this past Sunday had a ton of scratches due to the early morning thundershowers that chased the races off the turf and left the dirt surface a sloppy mess). Still plenty of money making opportunities, though, with lots of nice prices that weren't all that tough to come by. With the end of the Lone Star meet, we're supposed to get big stables here from Dallas Keen and Mike Stidham and Steve Assmussen and Kenny Smith (including Silver Goblin?), plus others like Donnie van Hemel and Jim McCoy and Joe Broussard and Richard Scherer, so I'm looking forward to a good summer.

So, overall, I give Hawthorne a big thumbs up for their efforts to make HAW the place to spend the summer. Last year I know I wondered if HAW could pick up the slack and appeal to all my friends who only visited AP, but I won't have any trouble at all inviting those folks down to HAW to see their shiny clean plant.

Good work, Mr. Carey!